Cynthia Marie Hoffman is the author of Sightseer, winner of the Lexi Rudnitsky First Book Prize in Poetry, and the forthcoming Paper Doll Fetus. A chapbook, Her Human Costume, is also forthcoming in spring 2014. Hoffman’s poems have appeared in Pleiades, Fence, Blackbird, diode, The Journal, and elsewhere.
Can you share a moment that has shaped you as a writer (or continues to)?
Some poems come quickly, and some are hard-won. I used to think my most successful poems were those I had tortured over, fought the hard battle for. Those were my Big Important Poems. The poems that flowed more easily seemed strange to me; I’d spent less time with them; they were acquaintances rather than lovers.
I used to be surprised when readers loved those strangers, those poems that had come more easily. It seemed I’d gotten it all backwards. Writing should be hard, right? We’ve all heard the stories of books that took ten years to write, poems that were revised a hundred times. We often glorify the battle stories with the intention of championing the true hard work of being a writer, and it is hard work. But we also run the risk of internalizing the idea that “good” poems (whatever that means) must only have risen from struggle, some prolonged and beleaguered dissatisfaction with our own work.
A narrow concept of the way a successful poem should feel when you’re writing it limits the kinds of poems you allow yourself to write. This realization didn’t suddenly snap me awake one day; rather, it dawned on me slowly, and my craft slowly opened up right along with it. These days, I feel much looser when I’m writing, sometimes as if I’m painting in broad strokes. The poems are still intentional, still ambitious, but I’m having a lot more fun writing them. And I think it shows in my work.
What are you reading?
Blood, by Shane McCrae. Scary, No Scary, by Zachary Schomburg. To See the Queen, by Allison Seay.
Can you tell us what prompted your poems in HFR?
The four poems that appear in HFR 3.2 come from a chapbook to be published by Gold Line Press in spring, 2014. As a whole, the chapbook explore the dynamics of caretaking among women in various stages of life from birth through death. When I began writing the poems, my daughter was just a baby and seemed to me a curious creature with animal needs. At that same time, my mother was hundreds of miles away, caring for my sister in recovery from surgery. In her weakened state, my sister was not unlike the way I saw my own infant daughter. Even though my sister was nearly forty years old, I imagined her returning to my mother’s arms as a kind of reunion of mother and child, the reawakening of something instinctual.
That poem, “[After the operation, my sister needs help],” is about grown children returning to their mothers in times of need. I felt that I needed my mother as well, but I had just become a mother myself. Though I never enter a poem as if were a confessional or therapeutic space, writing these poems did help me to frame those first unsettling months of motherhood and to recognize that the drive to care for a child is as strong as (or stronger than) the need to be cared for. Even many years later, it remains as burning and irrepressible as it was on the first day.
What’s next? What are you working on?
I am entrenched in a new series of poems, a memoir of sorts comprised of obsessions, compulsions, and fabrications of the mind. In which an angel stands guard at the closet door. In which a phantom is dragged through the snow, hanging by my throat. In which a great many things explode or catch on fire. In which multiplications of the number seven try to make sense of it all. As in, seven fourteen twenty-one twenty-eight. And so on.
Take the floor. Be political. Be fanatical. Be anything. What do you want to share?
The tale of how I recently escaped an episode of “project tunnel vision” thanks in part to Heavy Feather Review.
The poems that appear in 3.2 were originally part of a full-length manuscript that wasn’t working as a whole. I was convinced that if the manuscript wasn’t working, the poems themselves weren’t working. So I held onto them—all fifty of them—for more than two years. It was a long, dark time in which I was tormented by the decision of book or no book, book or no book. The project had become, as any project can, a vicious trap.
It wasn’t until one day I hacked the thing in half to reveal a chapbook that was working that I became excited about the poems, even though they had always been there. I started to send them out into the world. Quickly, a handful of them were accepted by editors. Suddenly, the chapbook won a prize.
When the poems started to appear in journals, magical things happened. And I don’t mean the encouragement and validation that comes with publication, which is also nice, but that I was reminded of what it’s like to actively participate in the conversation of poetry. I was suddenly connecting with other writers I wouldn’t have reached just by reading.
So I finally made it into the light at the end of the tunnel, dragging my hacked and bloodied poems with me. Or, half of them. And I’ve learned my lesson. In the future, I plan to stay out of tunnels.